It was a solemn moment in the great meeting hall in the Vatican where the joint agreement and statement was to be signed by the representatives of the great world religions. It was not some lofty, irrelevant declaration to work for mutual respect for different faiths but to launch the “Global Freedom Network.” Its goal is to eradicate modern forms of slavery and human trafficking.
The agreement to work together was because they shared abhorrence at the growing numbers of victims and the “searing personal destructiveness of modern slavery and human trafficking.” The statement calls for “urgent action by all other Christian Churches and global faiths.” This is a historical cooperation agreement and gives hope to many that people of faith will work together to stop it or reduce it significantly.
Pope Francis was represented by Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences. Present too were Mahmoud Azab, on behalf of the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt, Rev. Sir John Moxon, on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, and Andrew Forrest, founder of the Walk Free Foundation. It is an important undertaking and a major change in church policy and practice. In the past, it was generally ignored, now it is taking center stage.
This modern form of slavery comes as bonded labor where people are enslaved to pay a debt, or pressured and threatened if they don’t work as unpaid labor and worst, trafficked into sex slavery. The International Labour Organization estimates that women and girls represent the largest share of forced labor victims with 11.4 million trafficked victims (55 percent) compared to 9.5 million (45 percent) men. Most of the girls and women are forced into sex bars and clubs and brothels that are operated with local government permits in the Philippines and elsewhere.
Thousands of young teenage children, mostly girls are lured away from their families and villages with offers of fine jobs and are sold into brothels from where they have no escape. There is an estimated 25 million people in slavery today, an illegal business that generates as much as US$34 billion a year. It is estimated that US$15 billion is generated in the developed countries.
The trafficking of children and rape even in a police station is shocking but all too frequent. Take the case of the latest child victim at the Preda center for abused children. Jezebel was only 13 years old when her stepfather tried to rape her but she was quick and agile enough to escape his clutches and ran away. She found a job in a store in Limay, Bataan but was accused of stealing and was brought to the Limay police station.
There, after a while, she was forced into an empty cell by a prisoner trustee and was raped. The police officer on duty saw her being raped and ignored it. Some days later, Jezebel with her trusted aunt, went back to the police station to file a charge of rape but the female police officer did not give them a certificate to have a medico-legal examination and they were advised to forget it. A case was filed but after several months, the prosecutor in Balanga, Bataan has not acted on it. That’s the state of justice and the Church and human rights advocates ought to take up this case and go write to the media, the Secretary of Justice and the Secretary of Interior and Local Government about this case.
The Vatican press statement underlined just how important this move is where millions of children are raped every year like Jezebel. According to the Joint Statement, “Modern slavery and human trafficking are crimes against humanity. The physical, economic, and sexual exploitation of men, women and children condemns 30 million people to dehumanization and degradation. Every day we let this tragic situation continue is a grievous assault on our common humanity and a shameful affront to the consciences of all peoples. Any indifference to those suffering and exploitation must cease. We call to action all people of faith and their leaders, all governments and people of goodwill, to join the movement against modern slavery and human trafficking and support the Global Freedom Network.”
This is such a serious and growing problem that group action of protest and demanding government to fight it, not support it. That seems to be case at present. We have to take a stand and speak out. Silence can even be misunderstood as consent. The faith that does not flow over into action for justice is dead, says Saint James. We cannot be the walking dead, we need to be filled with the spirit and have compassion and concern and take action. Faith is at its highest point when we become disciples of Jesus and go imitate the good done by the Samaritan.
There is an important challenge to all of us in this statement and initiative. Taking action to save the victims of abuse and exploitation is what Jesus of Nazareth did and expect the same from his followers.